THERMOPOLIS — In April 2001, Absaroka Bicycles owner Rick Roach submitted a proposal to the U.S. Forest Service to provide guided mountain bike trips into the Shoshone National Forest.
Last week, almost 10 years later, Roach finally got the answer he has been waiting to hear — his Cody bike shop will be awarded a temporary special-use permit for this summer to take customers into America’s oldest national forest.
“I had almost given up hope,” Roach said. “After a certain number of years, you keep hitting stone walls, so it’s tough to look forward any longer to that permit. This obviously gives us a little bit more light at the end of the tunnel.”
Every year for the past decade, Roach and other entrepreneurs in Park County have asked forest managers to issue new permits for activities like mountain biking or ice climbing that have never been commercially guided on the North Zone of the forest, as well as additional permits for activities like fishing, for which demand has grown and changed over the years.
Though unguided biking, fishing and climbing is widespread on public lands across the country, the Forest Service carefully regulates commercial activities on public lands, working to protect habitat and wildlife while avoiding overcrowding.
Forest managers had long said they understood the merits of permitting such activities, but a seemingly endless cycle of delays, red tape, changes in personnel and other factors has been cited as reasons for a decade of inaction.
Meanwhile, over the past six years and during 88 interagency meetings, federal planners had continued to consult with state and local officials to revise the Shoshone National Forest’s management plan, a process that started in 2005 and will guide for 20 years or more many of the decisions about how the forest is used.
Federal lawsuits over protections for roadless areas in national forests and other — sometimes conflicting — legal decisions have long delayed completion of the Shoshone Forest plan, frustrating efforts by managers to move forward with a new plan for managing nearly 2.5 million acres. The forest includes critical habitat for threatened and endangered species, including grizzly bears and Northern Rockies gray wolves.
Though U.S. Forest Service managers in Cody had hoped to release a draft plan in May, a meeting with local officials in Thermopolis on Feb. 28 revealed there was still much work to be done before a draft plan can be released. That was no surprise for prospective permittees, who assumed their requests would be delayed at least another year.
“Because those have been requested for years, I’m going to go forward with some temporary permits this year for some activities to address that for the short term,” said Wapiti District Ranger Terry Root.
He said the Forest Service is still finishing an analysis of recreation needs and resource availability that will help guide the overall forest plan, but that until that process is finished, he is authorized to issue some temporary permits.
Root said he would give Roach a permit to guide mountain biking, along with two new permits for guided fishing trips, aimed at serving high-end anglers who see fishing as their primary activity while in the Cody area. Though some outfitters and guides have offered fishing trips, that usually comes as part of a package of hunting or dude ranch services, Root said, and not as a standalone activity from a specialized fishing permittee.
By winter 2011-12, Root plans to issue a temporary permit for commercially guided ice climbing along the South Fork of the Shoshone River, hailed by many climbers as the best collection of frozen waterfalls in the United States.
The temporary permits will allow new guided activities to move forward until they can be permitted on a long-term basis after the new forest plan is completed and adopted, probably sometime in 2012.
“That’s excellent. I just wish it had happened 10 years ago when I was a little younger,” said Kenny Gasch, Cody representative for Jackson Hole Mountain Guides.
Gasch has joined Roach and others in lobbying the Forest Service, local elected officials and even Wyoming’s Congressional delegation for the past decade to issue new recreation permits.
Root said there was no guarantee that the ice climbing permit would be issued to Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, because other companies had also expressed an interest. The Forest Service would evaluate proposals from those who have asked to guide ice climbers to choose one that best meets the necessary requirements for safely guiding such a technically complex activity. He also cautioned that guided climbing may not be allowed in wilderness areas under the permit.
Gasch credited incoming Shoshone Forest Supervisor Joe Alexander, who started work in November, with taking a fresh look at permitting new commercial recreation activities.
Roach said he met with Alexander in March, updating him on the long history of his pending request.
“Joe seems like a really stand-up guy that the whole community can work with, and I think he’s going to be a real asset to the Shoshone,” Roach said.
Alexander, who had been serving as the Deer River district ranger on the Chippewa National Forest in Minnesota, has also worked in national forests and grasslands in Montana, North Dakota, Nevada and Washington.
County commissioners, conservation district supervisors, state agency specialists and others from counties in northwestern Wyoming had their first meeting with Alexander in February, and are set to meet with him again in Riverton on April 7.
The February meeting got off to a rocky start as some of the dozens of local cooperators — a legal status that allows state and local officials to participate in development of the forest’s management plan — told Alexander they wanted to be involved in nearly every aspect of the process, not just areas where they might have specific technical expertise.
Alexander explained that it could add months to the timeline for finishing the plan, and said it would be impossible to release a draft by May, as had been planned.
After a break for lunch, Alexander told cooperators that he had thought staff members were further along in drafting a new plan than they were, and that he would delay releasing a draft until later in the year, allowing for more participation and consensus from all parties.
“We obviously had some problems,” he said. “I apologize for the fact that we’re a little bit out of sync.”
“I’ve sat at this table for a long time, and that’s one time that I feel like someone has really heard me,” said Clara Mae Yetter, a supervisor with the Meeteetse Conservation District.
Another odd result of the Shoshone Forest’s long road to developing a plan is that its management blueprint will be developed and approved under the 1982 Forest Service planning rule in place when the process started. But the neighboring Bridger-Teton National Forest, which is just starting to revise its management plan, will use a new draft planning rule released in February.
Some Forest Service officials and cooperators have said the 1982 rule places more emphasis on multiple use of forest resources. But others, including some environmental groups, have expressed concern that the new rule doesn’t do enough to protect the environment.
According to the Forest Service, the new rule will allow for: adaptive management in the face of climate change and other factors, increased requirements for public involvement, increased protections for water resources, updated provisions for sustainable recreation and new requirements for local monitoring of forest conditions.
Alexander said that, while important, a forest management plan is not a catch-all document that can predetermine every aspect of what happens in a national forest.
Some factors — like the relentless spread of bark beetles and other pests and the increased use of all-terrain vehicles — have brought big changes to the Shoshone over the past few years, he said.
“But things sometimes get blown out of proportion a little bit in terms of what actually happens on the ground after” a plan is completed, he said. “I don’t think we’ll see the kind of sweeping changes with this plan that cause controversy.
If you go…
The Shoshone National Forest hosts a public meeting with government cooperators from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. on Thursday, April 7. The meeting will be at the Wyoming Fire Academy, 2500 Academy Ct., in Riverton
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9321 or [email protected].